Non-toon talent brings life to animation

Directors, scribes help polish animated pics

“The Brain Trust” has popularly described the core creative group at Pixar Animation — a group that notably expanded beyond animation veterans when the studio tapped Michael Arndt (pre-“Little Miss Sunshine”) to pen “Toy Story 3.”

But Pixar isn’t alone in tapping live-action talent to punch up their toons. DreamWorks Animation hired “Being John Malkovich” scribe Charlie Kaufman to do a polish on “Kung Fu Panda 2,” and the studio counts “Greenberg” scribe Noah Baumbach (who is writing “Madagascar 3”), director Anand Tucker and d.p. Guillermo Navarro among its collaborators.

DreamWorks Animation recently announced a production deal with Guillermo Del Toro, who’s been spending a couple days a week on the lot since late summer, developing “Trollhunters” for the studio and offering notes on “Megamind” and “Kung Fu Panda 2.”

Production co-prexy Bill Damaschke expects this crossover trend to continue. “I think why they all love coming here is that it’s a place where all day we’re talking about focusing on trying to solve the hardest story problems and the hardest visual problems. They love being engaged in that process,” he says.

Pixar veteran and “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich agrees. “People who come in from the outside find the process very refreshing. They’re used to taking notes from studio executives, not fellow creatives,” he says.

Unkrich observes that Arndt wasn’t Pixar’s first live-action crossover: “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon worked on the original “Toy Story.”

“Michael quickly proved that he could help with all of our movies,” Unkrich says, “He’d never written for animation, but we didn’t care. A good story is good, no matter how you film it.”

For Arndt, Pixar’s collaborative approach offered a distinct creative advantage. “In live action, it’s expected that a writer will be left alone,” he says. “That wins you lots of autonomy in the first draft, but it can leave you stranded when you’re looking for feedback to make your work better. You’re only as good as the feedback you get. And a live-action writer usually deals with just a handful of people: the producer, the director and studio executives. You get notes from people with different agendas, and that can make rewriting a tricky endeavor.”

By contrast, the Pixar brain trust provides a feedback loop that Arndt likens to the “writers rooms” on TV series. “At Pixar, everyone watches a story reel together, and this forces people to have conversations and clarify things.” In this atmosphere, Arndt adds with a laugh, “the writer can fight back!”

A particularly notable example of a live-action crossover artist is d.p. Roger Deakins, who shot both “True Grit” and “The Company Men” this year, but also consulted on Pixar’s “Wall-E” and DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon.”

“My involvement with ‘Dragon’ was over a year. I had a calibrated, dedicated website that connected me with DreamWorks all the time,” he explains.

Deakins admits that a live-action d.p. has to adjust to working in animation, where layout is handled separately from lighting. “In live-action, I light (the scene) and operate the camera,” he says. “I’ve tried to get layout artists to have some interchange with the people who do the lighting. One area relies on the other. It’s a ballet.”

While “Dragon” had swooping aerial sequences, Deakins cautioned against doing “impossible” shots frequently seen in CG. “Audacious shots can be meaningless. You go, ‘Oh, wow!’ But you’re not meant to go, ‘Oh, wow.’ You’re meant to be engaged in the story,” he cautions.

Deakins intends to continue with Dreamworks, consulting on the “Dragon” sequel and “The Croods.”

“We’ve created a way for amazing live-action filmmakers to contribute on our films,” Damaschke explains, “but we also recognize that they have live-action careers.”

Deakins believes this situation won’t be considered unusual going forward: “There’s already such crossover now, and in 20 or 30 years, it’s all going to be the same thing.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: Animation:
Decade proves toons’ worth | Indie pics keep hand in game | Non-toon talent brings life to animation

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